How do we judge the value of a building? Is it purely down to how the space looks and feels? Or is it something else, something harder to define: the effect it has on our day-to-day lives, its impact on communities?
Such questions spring from the newly-announced shortlist for the Riba Stirling Prize for 2013, which features six diverse sites, from a visitors' centre at the Giant's Causeway in Northern Ireland that seems to literally grow out of the ground to a once-despised 1960s tower block in Sheffield. While in the past this prize - the Royal Institute of British Architects’ highest accolade - has awarded some of architecture's big beasts (the Gherkin and the Scottish Parliament building to name a few), this year’s shortlist is more nuanced, smaller somehow.
In fact, you couldn't choose six more diverse buildings if you tried. Yet a nuns' chapel, the 60s tower block, a home built in the ruins of a 12th-century castle, an Essex estate of new homes, a visitor centre for an Irish tourist attraction and a recently constructed medical building all share one common thread - that good architecture is not just about a space's aesthetic value, but also about its worth in the real world. The shortlisted buildings and their architecture practices are:
Bishop Edward King Chapel, Oxfordshire by Niall McLaughlin Architects, London This building, which was constructed for Ripon College and an order of nuns, the Community of St John the Baptist, includes high windows which flood it with natural light. Judges claim that it "fulfils its complex brief with a lyrical grace".
Giant's Causeway Visitor Centre, Northern Ireland by heneghan peng architects, Dublin The centre has no right angles, giving it a unique look to help publicise the tourist attraction of 40,000 interlocking basalt columns caused by an ancient volcanic explosion.
Newhall Be, Harlow by Alison Brooks Architects, London Judges believe this £12 million cluster of 84 new Essex homes "raises the bar for suburban housing developments".
Astley Castle, Warwickshire by Witherford Watson Mann Architects, London This Landmark Trust holiday home has been created within the ruined walls of a 12th-century manor.
University of Limerick Medical School by Grafton Architects, Dublin This cool, grey, monolithic complex shows just what can be achieved on a tight budget.
Park Hill Phase 1, Sheffield, by HawkinsBrown with Studio Egret West, London (pictured) This once unloved 1960s "brutalist" concrete tower block complex has undergone a contemporary facelift. It was given a Grade II listing in 1997. But it has only attracted admiring glances since the upgrade, which includes preserving graffiti in neon lights, reading "I love you will u marry me".
Creative vision Angela Brady, Riba's president, said: "The UK is blighted with unimaginative, poor quality houses that people don't want to live in … so I'm delighted to see two amazing and highly original housing projects on this year's shortlist." The theme running across all of these chosen sites is that spaces mean different things to different people, and that it isn't necessarily a site's pure aesthetic that makes it important - it's the role it has played in communities. As Riba says, these buildings show that "creative vision improves our lives". The winner will be announced on September 26 at Central Saint Martins, Kings Cross. Click here for tickets.